“And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.” Thus the Book of Genesis — indeed the Tanach, the Hebrew Scriptures — begins its human narrative with nothing less than the murder of a brother by a brother. Genesis is all about family conflict and reconciliation — almost always sibling-to-sibling conflict — setting the pattern for the community- and nation-building of Exodus. Much of Jewish tradition is a forth-and-back between sibling hostility and sibling harmony.
Beginning almost at the beginning is the question of why Jacob’s biblical brother Esau is the object of hatred and excoriation. The most serious rift between brother and brother was, of course, that of Jacob and Esau, which played out, in the Jewish traditional mind, in Jewish history. Throughout Jewish history the locution “Eisav sonei et Yaakov” — “Esau hates Jacob” — resonates as the classic rabbinic formulation of anti-Semitism: Babylonia, Rome, Christendom as “Edom” — the anti-Semitic descendants of Esau: anti-Semitism incarnate, anti-Semitism universal, anti-Semitism unending, anti-Semitism eternal.
But why in fact did the Jacob-Esau dynamic develop in the way it did? Bar-Ilan University’s Elie Assis (“Why Edom? On the Hostility Towards Jacob’s Brother in Prophetic Sources,” Vetus Testamentum, 2006) suggests that the hostile attitude toward Esau, prevalent in the Jewish prophetic tradition, had its roots in how the ancient Hebrews (and later the Judeans) perceived the meaning of the struggle between their father Jacob and their uncle Esau. “Edom’s” — that is Babylonia/Assyria’s, and later Rome’s — aspirations to conquer parts of Israel was interpreted as Edom’s wish to reverse the matter of the stolen birthright, hence control of the promised land, and to restore the election to Esau. Yes, the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion from their land were signs of the severance of the relationship between God and Israel. But the Jews believed that Edom was at least temporarily chosen by God. First, there was the Edomite participation in the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion; second, the land was in fact colonized by the “Edomites” — whoever these Edomites might have been: Babylonia or Rome or Christendom. “The theological significance that Judah assigned to Edom’s acts is what led the prophets to focus on Edom . . . and the oracles were meant to instill into the hearts of the people that, despite the destruction, Israel is still the chosen people.”
Journal Watcher moves easily from the ancient theological and historical implications of sibling relationships, to “shrink time” with chasidic masters in the early years of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis intersects with chasidism in a fascinating article, “An Occupational Neurosis: A Psychoanalytic Case of a Rabbi” (AJS Review, April 2010), in which Touro College’s Maya Balakirsky Katz teases out from a remarkable case-study from the earliest years of psychoanalysis — involving none other than the fifth rebbe of the Chabad dynasty, Rabbi Shlomo Dov Ber Schneersohn — the dynamics of sibling relationships and chasidus.
In 1903, in consultation with Sigmund Freud, the Viennese psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel treated Rabbi Shlomo Dov Ber, who, it turns out, was the first Jewish cleric known to undergo analysis. The notion of a chasidic rebbe undergoing analysis in the years of the discipline’s infancy was remarkable in itself; fascinating as well is that the case indeed turned on a serious sibling quarrel. It emerged in the course of Rabbi Shlomo Dov Ber’s analysis that the rabbi’s older brother had received a monetary inheritance upon the death of their father, while Shlomo Dov Ber received a collection of manuscripts hand-written by his father and other Schneersohn ancestors. After the brother spent his material inheritance, he came to the rabbi to demand the beloved books as well. In response, the rabbi, caught up in his passion, declared, “ … [R]ather I would be taken from the books myself” — an indication that the Chabad dynasty itself would be placed in jeopardy by a brother-against-brother quarrel. “Although the rabbi endeavored to narrate the grave nature of his psychic conflict over the holy books … Stekel surmised that the incident masked a more fundamental sibling conflict, which emerged in the interpretation of Shlomo Dov Ber’s dreams.” Balakirsky Katz notes that while the sibling conflict was only one piece of the larger psychoanalytic puzzle pondered by Wilhelm Stekel, it was significant in that it invoked classical sibling rivalries in Jewish tradition, which could not but have had an impact on the rabbi’s condition.
Oh — the rabbi was cured.
Finally, Journal Watcher notes that one cannot discuss siblings without celebrating that classic cluster of siblings: the irrepressible dairyman Tevye’s daughters in Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye” cycle of stories. Clark University’s Olga Litvak neatly contextualizes “Khave,” the fourth story of the cycle, in the events of 1905 in Russia. In “Khave and her Sisters: Sholem Aleichem and the Lost Girls of 1905” (Jewish Social Studies, Spring/Summer 2009), Litvak suggests that the traumatic events of 1905 — revolution in Russia, the culmination and the prefiguring of social turmoil in that land — “represented a defining moment in the development of Sholem Aleichem’s literary persona.” In Litvak’s view, Sholem Aleichem identified with the eponymous Khave, his “lost girl of the revolution,” and with the heroine Tamara of his novel “Der Mabl” (The Flood) as well. Khave, a rebellious heroine with a non-Jewish lover “signified the writer’s profound alienation from the Jewish political narrative of pogrom violence and his embrace of a deliberately provocative secular aesthetic.” Khave is the rebel — religiously and politically; her sisters, whatever their turns and twists, remain in the mainstream. Tsaytl forgoes a match with a wealthy man in order to marry a poor tailor; Hodl engages herself to a Jewish revolutionary. “Khave serves to intensify the conflict between Tevye’s traditional values and modern sensibilities encroaching on the Jewish family with unbearable results.” Litvak’s tour-de-force contrasting of Khave with her siblings takes Journal Watcher on a turn-of-the-century literary romp — Gorky, Bialik, Y.D. Berkovich, S. An-Ski — and the Tanach.
“All wrote on the canvas of the revolution,” notes Olga Litvak — and it was ever thus, from Cain and Abel to the 20th century: sibling rivalry, sibling contrast, sibling harmony.
Jerome A. Chanes is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism through the Ages” (ADL) and editor of “A Portrait of the American Jewish Community” (Praeger).